Barcelona has been focusing all its attention to making the city an increasingly liveable and sustainable space for some time now, and the implementation of the Superillas is the most visible issue of the work that has been carried out in recent years. To find out first-hand what are the keys to making Barcelona a more sustainable city, we had the opportunity to talk to Janet Sanz, Deputy Mayor for Ecology, Urban Planning, Infrastructure and Mobility of Barcelona City Council.
Barcelona seems to have become a model city when it comes to the redistribution of urban space, but what city models is Barcelona inspired by?
Barcelona is inspired by some cities but above all, it shares and talks about policies and possible transformations with many cities.
A few weeks ago at COP26, we met with deputy mayors from Paris, London, Oslo… We are in permanent contact with some of them because the challenges, goals, strategies and even criticism are very similar.
We share several policies with Paris and London: “Protegim les escoles” (Protect Schools), the project that aims to pacify traffic around schools is being developed by the 3 cities at the same time.
Also in the promotion of the pacification of the city’s main avenues, such as the Champs Elysées in Paris or the Diagonal or the Meridiana, the increase of the cycling network, the reduction of parking spaces….
What is your assessment of the superblocks so far and what is the aspiration with them in the coming years?
Our assessment of the Superillas is very positive.
We see it in Sant Antoni, for example, where we have reduced emissions by 25% and it is the neighborhood that is leading the economic recovery at a commercial level.
We also see this in Horta, where 60% of women and 66% of men consider that walking comfort has increased.
In the Superilla del Poblenou we see that the most intensive use of public space is by families with children and working people. In other words, we see how it stops being a passing place to change into a place to be, to play, to hang out.
Based on these experiences at the local, neighborhood level, we see that we have to make a leap in scale and transform the whole city into a Superilla. That is why we propose that 1 in 3 streets in 2030 should be green streets. But not only that, we want the rest of the streets to focus on sustainable mobility and pedestrians.
Is part of the basic idea of the superblocks part of the concept of “making the city child-friendly (and playable)”?
Of course. Cities have always been thought from a certain point of view, which put the middle-class working-age man at the centre. This now must be reversed and urban design needs to incorporate the perspectives of those who have historically been excluded from this planning, such as children, older people, women….
We are convinced that a better city for children is a better city for everyone. We want them to feel the city is theirs: that’s why we are starting projects such as “Protegim les escoles” (Protect the Schools), where traffic is reduced and play and seating areas are created around schools, the increase in playgrounds and the construction of the 10 emblematic playgrounds in the city.
But not only specific projects, it is something that crosses all our actions: when we develop green streets and pacifications or “l’Obrim-Carrers”, we make them safe spaces to play, learn to ride a bike…
Despite the general acceptance of superblocks, are there any critical voices in neighbourhood circles? What are the drawbacks that have been communicated?
Changes are always complex, but overall there has been a very good reception. It has been important, before carrying out a pacification, to discuss it well with neighbours and traders, to specify the best solutions for each case, to establish the loading and unloading points…
How ambitious can local councils be in implementing courageous urban sustainability policies?
Local councils are the administration closest to the population, the first to be approached to express discomfort or to demand rights. We are the paradigmatic places where change and innovation happen, so it is clear that we have (and are) leading these courageous urban policies.
Have you run into pressures on mobility issues, especially when they have affected road traffic space?
Yes, of course. It is clear that change may meet with reluctance in sectors that have benefited from the current situation.
But it has also been very well received in many sectors, we have seen it in schools, among young people … because after all, we are implementing necessary changes. Standing still in the midst of a climate emergency would be the worst thing we could do to our city.
Has the pandemic anticipated new ways of understanding space within the city?
I think it has speeded it up, but it was a change that was already underway. Awareness of the inequality of public space, high levels of pollution… Were being in the public spotlight.
But it is clear that the pandemic has highlighted that we needed more space to ensure social distancing and that this was largely dominated by the car It has made clearer the need to reclaim the city for its people.
Do you think Europe’s major cities are doing what it takes to reduce pollution?
I think they are doing the most. Because cities are the first ditches where problems are identified. It is we who see the daily pollution levels in our city.
The changes being implemented in Paris, Oslo, London or already implemented in Copenhagen, Amsterdam… are impressive. We are also the agents pushing our states to take more ambitious measures.
Are we facing a moment of cultural change that is conducive to taking action to reduce car use in cities?
Absolutely. We currently assume a historical inequality: 60% of public space is for cars.
We are in a moment of change where it is clear that we need to rethink the design of our cities to mitigate the impact of climate change and democratize public spaces.
How important is it to generate good infrastructure for sustainable mobility?
It is essential to have good infrastructure to promote their use, which means having cities that guarantee the right to mobility in a sustainable way.
Should aspiring to car-free cities be an aspiration or should cities be designed that coexist with them?
It is important that cars and motorcycles reduce their presence in the city: by 2024 we aim a 25% reduction in journeys by private vehicle. And by 2030, we want the number to be even lower.
But it is also important to know that cars will continue to be needed in many cases, by the elderly, people with reduced mobility… And what we need to work on together with private companies is to make them electric. We have designed an urban electrification plan for them, to adapt it to the arrival of the electric vehicles.
And at the same time guarantee that the reduction in private car goes hand in hand by greater public transport to guarantee the right to mobility. We have implemented an orthogonal bus network, we are linking the Tramway that will allow us to connect opposite points of the city in 25 minutes, we have doubled the cycling network since 2015…
How do you think private companies should contribute to promoting more sustainable modes of mobility?
It is essential that companies see the opportunity that this change in model represents. In Catalonia we see it, the companies that take on this green future, with electric, public transport or the creation of bicycles are growing a lot in recent years.
It is very clear that the transition to a sustainable horizon will not be achieved by public administration alone, but we need companies committed to innovation, pursuing a green and equitable future.
What should be the role of the bicycle in the city?
The bicycle is called to play a leading role in urban and metropolitan mobility. To this end, we are making great progress towards a cycling network that connects the entire city: in 8 years, we will have doubled the existing bike lanes, going from 120 km to 272 km.
Recent data show that cycling has increased exponentially, becoming the mode of transport for 10% of journeys. This shows us that there is a virtuous circle in which, the better the structure, the more cycling. And we have to continue along that path.